Learning Languages Online Using Virtual Watermelons, with Gold Lotus’ Michael McDonald

Teaching a language is a lot easier when you share a room with your pupil, and have the benefit of human interaction and body language to bolster the lesson. With VR, today’s guest Michael McDonald is able to do that for students in Norway, all the way from his HQ in Italy.

Julie: All right. Welcome, everybody, to the XR for Learning podcast. Today, I have Michael McDonald on the show. Originally from London, Michael now lives in Italy and graduated with a degree in German and business management after two years working in the U.K. public sector in HR and recruitment. He left his job in London to get back to what he loved to do most, and that was all about languages and education. So I would love to introduce Michael to the show, and I would love to have you tell us more about Gold Lotus, what you’re working on in the classroom using XR technologies, and talk about all the things that are going so well for you, educating these kids through virtual reality. Michael, welcome to the show.

Michael: Thanks for having me, Julie. And hello to any of the listeners out there that will listen to this later on. So really nice to be here. Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share a little bit about what I’ve been up to. But it’s not all about me. It’s about certainly the students and the teachers that I’m working with, and also the wider community and there’s a whole lot of stuff we can talk about on today’s episode regarding those. So yeah. In terms of your first point about Gold Lotus. Yes, it’s a kind of consultancy I set up here in Italy a few years ago after a good few years of exploring everything from Google Cardboard to 15-pound Amazon headsets — sorry, headsets from Amazon like virtual reality — and up to the latest Oculus Go, Oculus Quest and everything else in between. So I set up the consultancy, Gold Lotus, which basically reflects this kind of idea that, you know, anybody — and I’m going to get deep here, I’m sorry about that — but anybody can grow from those muddy waters.You might be a student or teacher kind of in the doldrums, maybe thinking, “well, what can I do to maybe accelerate my learning, or improve the way that I learn languages,” because that’s kind of my field. And it’s just kind of a way for people to be pushed by me, hopefully in the right direction, and shown alternative ways of using this new technology within a learning context. So that’s a bit of the background.

Julie: Yeah. And that’s fantastic. I’ve been showing up to some of the YouTube classes that you’ve shown on LinkedIn, and they just fascinate me because I think you’ve taken teaching to a whole different level. I’ve had several conversations with people about your lessons, just in different contexts. And it comes back to really testing who the teacher is, now, and the personality, the intonation in your voice, because these students can’t see you. And I think you have risen to the top, in my mind, of having that voice that is going to engage the kids and have them respond back. And I think that’s one of the best things that you’ve seen as obviously teaching these languages, that you’re encouraging these students to speak more and more and learn the English language. So maybe you can talk to the response of the students with some of the lessons that you’ve been doing.

Michael: Thanks for the compliments, but I really can’t take credit for those lessons. In a sense, yes, I provide the platform for them, just as you are doing now with your podcast. The vibe of the experience or the interaction, it does depends on the person with whom you’re talking, or the people. And so I guess that from my perspective, I’m just grateful that the tools are out there now for me to meet these people. When I talk about people, I’m talking — at the moment — so the students in Norway with the school we are collaborating with. There’s some schools in Italy as well, and soon the US going be joining that program. But I guess for me, it’s just I know what it’s like to study a foreign language. That is my background. And I think this is an important point to make: that my expertise, if you want to call it that, is a teaching English as a foreign language to people who can’t speak this language natively, or [who don’t have the] opportunity to. So I’m kind of helping them along that journey. And, you know, I guess all of us really have had some time in our life when we’ve not really been able to do something very well. And for me, it is languages, but I loved it. And I went on to study German at university, about 10 years ago now, and I carry around the big dictionary in my bag. And 10 years later, we’re now kind of immersing ourselves in these engaging scenes, as you’ve seen online. I’m just glad it’s happy to be exploring this technology and enjoying the fact that the tools are out there and the people actually want to join me and learn with me, because it’s such a learning curve for teach, as well.

Julie: Absolutely. And I think what I’d like to do is share a couple of these lessons that you’re doing that just seems so, so far off, but yet so simple. And the students were responding. The first one I saw was, you were teaching them about Brexit and you had the big ten– the big bank note, a 10-foot bank note in there, in their environment, and first of all, the environment was very bland. There was no furniture or anything like that. It was completely blank. And you had the students there as avatars, and the big bank note, and you were talking about Brexit. And to be honest, it was only a two minute YouTube video (which we’re going to drop in the show notes so everybody can take a look), but I wanted to learn more. And I think that the students, as you said in some of the comments on LinkedIn, you mentioned that their retention on this subject was… they did very well, based on what you taught them that day.

Michael: We can talk all day long about the engagement factor in these experiences, these lessons. And just for your listeners, if they’re not clear about what we’re talking about, essentially. I was using Rumii in those videos — that’s a company based in the US, I think it’s Seattle, that makes simulations — and I was using their a collaborative real-time platform called Rumii, and it basically provides me a space to meet people remotely anywhere in the world, and you can import these 3D models. And I did one of the big £10, 10-foot bank notes from my country, the UK, and it is just a great way to stimulate the conversation, because as a language teacher, you kind of feel like you want some props. You may be in a foreign country yourself. Maybe Italy, Germany, South America, and you want to kind of show people what some of your culture’s like, and give them something to get their teeth into conversationally. So VR allows you to do that. We also had a watermelon and you know, I wouldn’t cut a piece of watermelon and take that into class, because it just wouldn’t be very hygienic, possibly, or practical. You could do that in VR. So there are other platforms out there.

Julie: Just to give people that context, you took a massive… what was it, like a two-meter long piece of watermelon as a 3D asset inside the virtual world, and everybody took a bite out of this piece of watermelon, passed it around, and shared it. And regardless of what it was — you know, a watermelon or whatever — it was interesting to watch the community of your students sharing and doing the actions of actually being immersed in taking a bite out of this fake watermelon. But they laughed in that, and they thought it was great. And I thought that was so engaging of you. I thought that was fascinating.

Michael: Yeah, thanks. And it was useful for them. I just want to just pick up one final thing from what you said, which is really key. And it’s that despite this kind of engagement factor, I’m under no illusions that the end of the day, these students — at some point in their real lives or physical lives, if you want to call it that, away from the virtual experiences — they need to pass tests. They’ve got pressure from above, their parents want that they get a particular qualification to demonstrate that proficiency in English, or they might have school governors visiting the school, and that creates pressure for the teachers. So I’m always kind of looking as well at the longer-term thing after the engagement has worn off, or maybe after the initial excitement has worn off, because I think that’s really where the sweet spot is. Okay. Let’s now see, long-term, how this is really impacting their lives. There’s some great work done on the kinesthetic aspects of learning by — I think it was the Words In Motion project, it was called, at M.I.T., the fluid interfaces group; I can send you the link to that — but it was a fascinating project where they look to physical movements to learn language using VR. So people should definitely check it out as well.

Julie: That’s amazing. And then it also takes me to one of the other lessons that you did the other day, where you taught the students the transit system. I believe it was in the UK with the Oyster card. So we’re different here in Canada. In Toronto we have the Presto card. I was trying to relate to it, but still; providing the students with the education of, how do you travel on the trains? And pay? And where do you go and walk through the turnstiles? And while for some people it’s very it’s a natural thing, there’s some students who have never been on a train before. They’ve never been to a big city where they have to learn how to pay. And what better way for you to provide that experience before they go so that they know where they have to put the card and what it’s like to be on a train? I thought that was just fascinating, and I commend you again, to just taking something so simple but so immersive for these students.

Michael: You’re right, it is a great time to be alive, that’s for sure. And it provides context, basically, for the language learning. It’s not easy to imagine what you’re going to be like when you need to buy train tickets or order a fizzy drink from a shop when you get to London or the US or Canada, for example. So, VR absolutely provides those practice test bits, let’s call them.

Julie: Exactly. So maybe can you highlight just quickly some of the barriers that you’ve had? And I know hardware is one that we’re all facing, and that’s not going to go away, and it’s always going to change. Is that, I guess, maybe your top area, is just make sure the accessibility is there?

Michael: Having been through the education system as a foreign language learner, and then as a teacher for the past decade or so, you do a lot of thinking and reflection about what are the problems for me as a language learner and then as a language teacher, and then once you understand what the problems are, obviously, you look for solutions — or, you should do. And for me, VR was that natural best fit to answer some of those problems. So for me obviously, to experience– or, to provide experiences to people, you’re going to need the headsets, and that is costly. They have fallen a lot in price in recent years, particularly now in the kind of age of these new 6DoF experiences. We can look under things and over and round corners and stuff, which is wonderful. And room tracking! But, you know, if you’re a school, maybe you kind of think, “well, we don’t have the budget to buy it.” So that has been a barrier for sure. But in the end, where there’s a will, there’s a way. There’s nothing stopping you. If you’re a teacher out there, just do what I did, which was just buying one headset, making it work for a small group of students, growing it from there, and building your network of people around you. Like I said; where there’s a will, there’s a way.

Julie: Are your English classes going to be opened up for other students around the world to join? Is there a waiting list to get into your class?

Michael: Within reason, anybody is welcome at any time. So the ones that you’ve seen recently for the school in Norway are really just the start of what’s to come, because as I said, we’re launching this month — we’re already in February, now — a program with two schools in southern Italy, public-funded projects, which will be one academic year long, and they will be exposing students to all of the various elements of XR, whether that be virtual reality, augmented reality, whatever, and basically showing them this technology and getting their feedback on how they think it could best fit their curriculum. And also, of course, the teachers as well. So there’ll be Italian schools involved in the next few weeks. Talking to somebody, can’t say the name right now, not confirmed, but announcements should be out soon for some schools in the US as well. I would love to have Canada on board. Julie, if you can, if you want to get involved– and you mentioned your daughter as well, if you don’t mind me saying about a comment you mentioned on LinkedIn recently about striking over there in Canada.

Julie: Yes.

Michael: And this is what it’s all about, like in the sense of using technology to solve problems. So you’ve got a problem there. Your daughter potentially can’t go to school for a few days. Well, she can’t learn, but she sure as hell can teach. What’s stopping her with a headset jumping into something like Rumii, like Engage, like Mozilla Hubs, for example? All these platforms and offering a class, making use of her time. And the best way to learn is to teach. So the future’s bright for people if they just have a little bit of fire in their belly and some creative ideas.

Julie: That’s incredible. Yes, absolutely. And I’m taking that back, because I’ve got three days of strike days this week, so I do have to use them to the best of her time. One of the main goals of my XR for Learning podcast is to help people change the way that they learn, that they teach; in your words, if you were to give advice to the world, to the teachers out there, well, what would that advice be?

Michael: First of all, understand what the problems are. That is key. There’s a program at university/college, an EU-funded project called Educ8, and people should definitely check it out as well. And it’s a program which connects ed-tech startups and to teachers, school, senior leadership teams, etc. — and students — to try to understand, along with the academic community, about how best to answer some of those academic problems through technology. So the advice from me to people listening out there is, if you feel that some of the problems can be addressed with your virtual reality, augmented reality, for example, solutions, then try and get hold of a headset. If you can’t get hold of something, I think about Oculus Go these days is like $150 US. Maybe if you don’t have the budget for that, I totally understand; why not just grab a laptop or a tablet, go on some Azalea hubs, for example, they’ve got some great tools that you could look at. If you can even use your smart phones, you can put that into a cardboard device, which cost you a few dollars. So it starts off small, laser-focused. Understand what the problems are for yourself as a teacher, and for the students, and then just go from there; tweak things, get feedback, get feedback on the course from the students, and just grow it from there. But please understand where the problems are in your field. That’s the key thing.

Julie: Well, that’s a perfect way to end this podcast. Thank you, Michael, for joining me. This is the XR for Learning podcast with your host, Julie Smith. And thanks, everyone, for joining us.

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